Mary Queen of Scots: Apart from Saoirse Ronan it's drab and pedestrian

Review: Saoirse Ronan and Margot Robbie keep us awake. The director doesn’t help

Mary Queen of Scots
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Director: Josie Rourke
Cert: 15A
Genre: History
Starring: Saoirse Ronan, Margot Robbie, Jack Lowden, Joe Alwyn, David Tennant, Guy Pearce
Running Time: 2 hrs 4 mins

A few weeks ago, the distributors of Josie Rourke’s workmanlike historical drama embarked on one of the era’s more ill-considered social-media campaigns.

The words "What does sisterhood mean to you?" appeared above images of Margot Robbie and Saoirse Ronan in the guises of Elizabeth I and Mary, Queen of Scots. "Tag someone important to you," the message further urged.

Some pedants took the “#dearsister” campaign unreasonably literally and pointed out that the queens were actually first cousins once removed (I think the studio knew that). More damaging were the replies ridiculing the notion that these two legends offered any model of figurative sisterhood.

It surely cannot count as a spoiler to point out that the English queen – who never met Mary – eventually cut her Scottish counterpart’s head off following rumours of a coup.


Beau Willimon’s script is aware that these women were working within male power structures that favour adversarial negotiation, but the personal dynamic offers challenges for anyone furthering a feminist retelling.

Such inter-regal squabbles do continue. It would be fun to suggest that we end up with a variation on the ongoing, remote dispute between Cardi B and Nicki Minaj – not least because we could spend lovely hours deciding who is whom – but, sadly, the film hasn't the guts to fully embrace its camp potential.

There are hints here and there. The sequence where Saoirse Ronan rides out in armour that matches her blue eyes is utterly, utterly to die for. The famous pre-mortem unveiling of the red petticoat makes one yearn for Derek Jarman or Ken Russell.

Sadly, most of Mary Queen of Scots (no comma?) leans towards the drab and the pedestrian. Too many of the supposed flourishes speak of Rourke's theatrical background at the Donmar Warehouse.

A late scene (the details of which really would constitute a spoiler) finds characters wandering weirdly through a room decorated with inexplicable sheets of dangling muslin. This sort of thing works fine in studio productions of Richard II, but cinema audiences are bound to wonder who’s been drying their bandages.

For all that, you can’t argue with the roast-beef values of a robust British production that makes sound, sensible use of Irish and Australian talent. The queens, alone at different ends of the island, communicate cryptically through “Dear sister” letters that really do emphasise the pressures placed on women with inconvenient levels of power.

Ronan dovetails vulnerability with a determination that too often batters fruitlessly against male intransigence. Robbie delights in the pox that disfigured the Queen’s famous features. The lead actors enjoy themselves and their presence alone will keep audiences awake.

The film's slyest (possibly accidental) feminist gesture is to render most male characters so unutterably dull that any female actors – even ones less charismatic than these – would seem like homo-supernovae in comparison. Jack Lowden can't make Lord Darnley, Mary's second husband, any less pathetic than the historical record allows. Joe Alwyn, another strong young actor, fares scarcely better with top Liz-chaser Robert Dudley.

Thanks heavens for David Tennant's decision to turn John Knox – bearded like an untended shrub – into the sort of maniac who hands out religious tracts at railway stations.

There have already been objections to the puzzling liberties taken with history. Whereas the more cavalier The Favourite – set among relatives a century later – tweaked habits and language to create an alternative universe, the adjustments here are so random they can't help but poke awkwardly in your imagined ribs.

There seems no reason to have Mary, raised in France, speak with a Scottish accent other than the need to echo a word in the title. And so on.

Still, the pleasures of a classy production with classy performers are not to be wholly dismissed. It’s the best Sunday-night telly at the cinema this Friday.

Opens January 18th. This article has been edited to correct the star rating from 2 to 3

Donald Clarke

Donald Clarke

Donald Clarke, a contributor to The Irish Times, is Chief Film Correspondent and a regular columnist